By YAHYA BARZANJI
The Associated Press
Tuesday, March 15, 2011; 2:14 PM
SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq -- Two top Kurdish politicians resigned Tuesday from local government in northern Iraq in what appears to be a political maneuver to challenge Arabs for control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, one of the nation's most volatile fault lines.
The city is home to a mix of Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen, who all have competing claims. Kurds are seeking to incorporate Kirkuk into their autonomous region in Iraq's north - and out from under control of the Arab-dominated central government in Baghdad.
It is one of Iraq's most explosive disputes, and Kirkuk's Arabs and Turkomen have long opposed the Kurds' goal.
On Tuesday, officials said resigning provincial council chairman Rizkar Ali, a Kurd, would be replaced with Turkoman Hassan Torhan, raising speculation that a deal was struck to strengthen ties between the two groups against the area's Arabs.
The other resigning Kurd is provincial Gov. Abdul-Rahman Mustafa. Both men stepped down during a public meeting in Kirkuk, said councilman Rebwar Talabani.
"I hope the man elected for this job will work for the best of Kirkuk, and keep friendly living conditions among all, and be representative of all people living in Kirkuk," Mustafa said in an interview.
He said he resigned for personal reasons after eight years on the job.
A Turkoman politician said was the move is hoped to "lead to a closer approach between Turkomen and Kurds." He said the minority Turkomen, which are believed to make up about 12 percent of Kirkuk, have long felt sidelined by the city's Kurds. He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the delicate political situation.
Located 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Kirkuk is the capital of Tamim province.
Tensions in the city have long been a top concern for U.S. diplomats and military officials who fear it could unravel Iraq's tenuous security should Kirkuk's fragile peace fall apart.
A day earlier, hundreds of Iraqis gathered in Baghdad to demand the resignation of President Jalal Talabani for comments he made last week describing Kirkuk as a Jerusalem for Kurds - suggesting they must fight to bring the city into the semiautonomous Kurdistan region. Talabani, a Kurd, later said he was speaking as a political leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party and not as Iraq's twice-elected president.
And last month, Kurdish leaders sent thousands of their security forces, known as peshmerga, to Kirkuk under the guise of protecting citizens from demonstrations that could turn violent. Arabs and Turkomen accused the Kurds of trying to bring the city under Kurdish control.
Kirkuk has become a symbol of continued instability in Iraq, where insurgents launch attacks on an almost daily basis despite lower overall levels of violence over the last few years.
Even in the generally peaceful Kurdish region, clashes broke out between about 150 protesters and police in the village of Saied Sadiq, about 37 miles (60 kilometers) east of Sulaimaniyah, over whether the demonstration was properly licensed. Four protesters were wounded after police who were being pelted with rocks beat with them sticks, said village police Lt. Karawan Salih.
Additionally, two attacks in Baghdad - a shooting and a roadside bomb - killed a policeman and wounded eight people on Tuesday, officials said.